The picky eater guide: Part 2. The “Don’ts”

The Pediatric Insider

© 2012 Roy Benaroch, MD

Last post, the Picky Eater Guide started with some history and perspective. The bottom line: there is a huge nutritional problem in the developed world, and it’s causing huge health problems. But it’s not that kids don’t eat their veggies, or that kids don’t eat what their parents want them to eat. It’s that kids, and adults, eat too much. Unfortunately, some things parents do to try to get their kids to “eat healthy” might in the long run be contributing to the warped sense of appetite that seems to be a major cause of the obesity epidemic. This post is about what parents shouldn’t do—the “don’t” list of things that in the long run may end up doing far more harm than good. Got a picky eater? Let’s not make things worse by creating a picky eater with a weight problem.

Do not make food contingencies. That means, don’t make the availability of one food depend on whether another food is eaten first. Think about this common scene:

Mom: “Boscoe, if you eat your broccoli, you can have a brownie.”

Boscoe eats the broccoli, then eats the brownie.

What mom thinks: Good! I got him to eat the broccoli!

What Boscoe thinks: Wow, a brownie must be extra special—it’s a reward food! And broccoli must be some kind of horror. After all, I got a brownie for eating that dreck. I’ll keep in mind that no one in their right mind would voluntarily eat broccoli. I wonder if I can make some kind of deal to get more brownies?

So, net, after this scene, Boscoe did in fact eat some broccoli. But the cost of this was to reinforce how special and wonderful brownies are, and to encourage him to continue to crave them—while at the same time teaching Boscoe how nasty and unloved broccoli must be.

Remember: the point of a meal isn’t to get a serving of broccoli inside a child. (If that were the case, we could just sedate the kids and feed them through tubes.) The point is to 1) enjoy the meal as a family and 2) help reinforce healthy social and eating habits to last a lifetime.

Another big don’t: don’t force feed anything. You’ll create food aversions and a warped sense of anxiety and power struggles at meal time. If you’re forcing anything, you’re causing problems. Stop it. You also shouldn’t distract and fool children into eating, by, say, leaving a television on while you shovel the food in. Junior might continue to eat (kind of like a little bird, just opening up that mouth), but that’s not a way to teach children how to choose foods and modulate their own food intake. It’s also, well, creepy.

Next: how to reinforce The Rule, a Universal Truth and simple philosophy that should be the guiding principle of mealtime. When you’re hungry, eat. When you’re not hungry, don’t eat.


The picky eater guide: The whole enchilada:

Part 1. What’s the problem?

Part 2. The “Don’ts”

Part 3. The Rule

Part 4. The jobs of parents and kids

Part 5. Special circumstances, vitamins, and a muffin bonus

Explore posts in the same categories: Nutrition

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8 Comments on “The picky eater guide: Part 2. The “Don’ts””

  1. Ken Says:

    So how do you approach treats? I’d like to allow my toddler a bite of brownie or cake, etc., on occasion. But I don’t want her having these when she hasn’t touched her dinner. If the rest of the family is having a dessert should she get some regardless? A set amount so she isn’t filling up on dessert?

    Also hoping that you’ll address the issue of kids who refuse to eat at dinner but then ask for food at bedtime.


  2. Dr. Roy Says:

    Good questions, Ken.

    RE: Food treats at mealtimes: do NOT make them contingent on eating other foods (typically veggies or other things unlikely to be eaten.) Doing so elevates the magical an desirable nature of the treat, while driving down the desirability of the healthy food. In the long run, making brownies contigent on eating broccoli makes it much less likely that Junior will continue to eat broccoli, and much more likely that he’s continue to crave brownies. This is exactly what you DON’T want to do.

    If brownies are part of the meal, just put ’em on a plate and everyone gets one. You want to eat your brownie first? Fine with me. It’s just food. It’s not super-magic-ultra-food.

    If you just can’t bear to do that, offer brownies at other times, separate from meal times.


  3. Dr. Roy Says:

    RE: kids who refuse meals and then ask for food at bedtime: parents should plan on a near-bedtime snack for younger kids, who seem to do better on five meals a day. (Breakfast-lunch-snack-dinner-snack) As always, parents get to choose the elements of the snack (milk, bananas with a dot of peanut butter on each slice). Then Junior gets to choose how much milk and banana he eats. Then snacktime is over.

    As long as parents decide in advance what the elements of the snack are, it’s fine. You can choose the same elements that were at dinner, or different elements. But what you don’t want to do at snack or mealtimes is to go choose something different when the child decides not to eat what was offered. More about that later in this series!


  4. Ken Says:

    Thanks, this is very helpful!

    One last question – we have been using candy as a reward during potty training. Is this a bad idea? Should we replace that reward with a non-food item like stickers?


  5. Anj Says:


    Well, if you are using candy (I assume it’s something like one single M&M) as a reward, then I wouldn’t worry. If you aren’t giving them more than a small handful of candy over the whole day, using candy as a reward is fine.

    Eventually your child will have mastered toilet skills (ALL of them…still working on my not-so-little kids wash-your-hands-or-else) and you can continue using the candy treats for hanging their coat up or other daily chores.


  6. Dr. Roy Says:

    Ken, I have no problem with a (small) candy or other food treat as a reward to encourage desired behavior– just don’t use food to encourage eating other kinds of food.


  7. Melissa Says:

    so if they won’t eat anything you’ve offered, do you just say “ok, you can try again at the next meal”? what if it’s dinner? I feel like I’m sendng him to bed hungry. Are we to assume that if they were truly hungry, they would eat something that is in front of them?


  8. Dr. Roy Says:

    A child who goes to bed hungry because of an unavailability of food: that’s a tragedy. A child who chooses to not eat dinner? That’s a choice.

    Melissa, please don’t be afraid to let your child choose to go hungry. That’s his choice, not yours.

    And, yes, of course a person isn’t going to starve themselves when there is food available. When he’s “truly hungry”, he will eat. But if he’s gotten used to your making him exactly what he wants at every meal, he’s going to be stubborn about it. He’s worn you down before, and he will think he can “win” again by making a scene. He’ll make his choice, then you’ll make yours. What’ll it be?


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